The Workers' Paradise A Discussion of Workers Cooperatives and Building the New Economy

October 7, 2013

Be the Change You Want to See

Bob Cannell presented some challenging ideas about the nature worker cooperation in the English-speaking world last week. He noted the disparity in the rise of worker owned and controlled businesses in Spain, Italy, France, Brazil, Argentina and a number of other countries that he deemed “Latin”. What cultural barriers exist in our Anglo-Saxon based cultures that prevent the sort of acceptance of worker ownership.

I don’t want to suggest that this post is a “response” to Bob in the sense that I am providing a counter argument. I, too, see the disparity. I think that it is a good place to have a discussion because too often I see that the idea of worker ownership is a tool that may community organizers want to use, but they don’t seem to see worker control as being part of the deal. This allows social structures that might improve job and working conditions, but don’t teach workers how to engage in a democracy. There are some reasons for that, and ultimately, it is what separates the Latin/Anglo-Saxon views of work and humanity. These differences create limitations and I offered a discussion on this topic a couple of years ago in a post-entitled Roadblocks on the Path to Mondragon.

Of course, each cooperative has its own unique spot in history. Mondragon was aided, to a large degree, by the Falangist Party in that the country was isolated from the world and the workers of Mondragon were not seen as a threat to the fascists in the way that the anarchists of Barcelona and the Communist Party in southern Spain were seen to be. In Italy, the coops managed to navigate Mussolini’s world and WWII and came out strong enough to create a legal framework for their existence. All that aside, Bob’s discussion of culture is one that we must address. We cannot depend on market failure and depression to build our movement.

Schism

A key difference that needs to be discussed is that the Reformation divorced a certain segment of Europe from the Catholic Church. The English Reformation (with their allies in the Netherlands and Belgium) occurred just a couple of hundred years prior to the rise of capitalism. This meant that Europeans who largely rejected or ignored the teachings of the Catholic Church took over North America displacing the existing civilizations. While I don’t consider myself to be religious, I do recognize that the Catholic Church has played and will continue to play a key role in cooperative development. Rerum Novarum, the Encyclical of Pope Leo XIII on Capital and Labor created the basis of the distributist movement and led its expression in the form of the Antigonish Movement, Mondragon, and liberation theology promoted South American priests. Written in 1891, Leo XIII expressed official Church support for labor unions, but more importantly dignity in work and the ability of working men and women to be able to better themselves intellectually, spiritually and financially through mutual self-help and self-responsibility and solidarity—three values of the modern Cooperative Identity. Of course, Rerum Novarum as a response to the growing popularity of socialism that threatened the holding private property and the Catholic Church had and has a lot of private property.

Father Jimmy Thomson and Father Moses Coady led the Antigonish Movement in New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island (the area still has a strong Acadian population of native French speaking Canadians). In Spain, Don Arizmenidaretta led Mondragon and his writings clearly espouse the teaching of Leo XIII. The use of worker cooperatives by the Sandinistas (Nicaragua) and Chavez  (Venezuela) revolutions come directly out of Rerum Novarum and liberation theology. Even today, Catholic organizations work diligently to promote cooperatives world-wide.

Work, in the English experience is not held to the same standard or is seen as a communal act. Neither is commerce. The origins of the word “competition” came from rivalry between merchant classes of Italy. Cum Petere, according to cooperative economists Stefano and Vera Zamagni, expressed the desire of the merchants of one city to work together in competition against other cities (Milan vs. Florence, for example). The Reformation changed this concept and made the individual owner, not society the center of one’s efforts. Roy Jacques argues in his work, Manufacturing the Employee, that pre-industrial US saw employment as either a means to become an owner or a personal failure of the individual. By the end of the 19th Century, the ideas of Scientific Management (Taylorism) were starting to take hold in the US, Canada and the UK, which infantilized workers leaving them untrusted for either ownership or control.

Thus the divide between Latin and Anglo-Saxon cultures has led to different concepts of worker ownership and control. I think that the difference results from a lack of ideological, if not spiritual, basis for the value of work. This allows many in the US to see ESOPs as equivalent to worker cooperatives. It allows well-meaning affluent social workers to create worker coops in name but with structures that limit worker control. The infantilization of the US worker has become so deeply embedded in our culture that many workers may not even be able to emotionally handle ownership without significant training on what that really means or worse, people may actually believe that workers cannot emotionally handle ownership.

I will be focusing primarily on the US experience. This is because of another schism that took place in 1783. When the United States divorced themselves from the United Kingdom, they also forsook common law that dates back to the Magna Carta. This has played out in a country in which work and labor is largely devalued. The role of Common Law may be a minor one, but it does have an effect as the number of “right to work” states and “at will employment” states continues to grow. In terms of Union households, the US is hovering around 9%–one of the the lowest of OECD nations (lower than South Korea) while Canada and the UK hang in at 32 and 33 per cent respectively. The US, in its puritan, Jacksonsian democracy simply doesn’t value labor unless it is one’s own personal labor. The American Dream is a solitary one.

So What Do We Do About This?

As a movement, we need to talk about repowerment not “empowering” people. How is that different? I see repowerment as developing the sense within today’s working class that they have power and that power isn’t something given to them by benevolent wealthy people it is something that they already have and they need to use it. Repowerment means seeing ownership as something that has, to a large extent, been stolen from the working class by the employing class (or investing class). The infantilization of the modern worker through Scientific Management (Taylorism) and Human Relations (Taylorism with Mayo) is a leftover effect of slavery and indentured servitude that creates a culture of workers that don’t believe that they are capable of managing their own affairs.

Culture change needs to be front and center in our movement. We need to create the ideological, if not spiritual, basis for worker ownership as we organize workers. We can do this by working with like-minded groups such as pro-worker coop labor unions such as the US Steelworkers. We need to create a consistent message that the worker coop movement isn’t just about decent jobs, it is about creating human dignity and allowing workers to reach their full potential as a human being.

To some extent this may mean pushing back a bit on those seeking to use the worker cooperative model in community organizing. We need to hold them to standards of worker control as well as ownership while also providing the tools to help teach worker control.  Some may see this as being too ideological, but if we simply allow worker cooperation to be co-opted by ESOP style models (in which control stays in the hands of a super board, social workers, or an investing class), then we will be relegated to being a small movement.

Bob suggests that we can expand our movement if we can find governance models that make sense to the Anglo-Saxon mindset. However, given the population trends in the United States, I think that we would do better to change the Anglo-Saxon mindset. Due to globalization and post-colonial migration, our societies are becoming much less monolithic and mono-cultural. The era of Anglo-Saxon dominance in the world has been relatively short-lived, maybe 150 years and in the US the Anglo-Saxon culture may become a minority culture within the next fifty years. Fortunately, one aspect of Anglo-Saxon mindset is the ability to quickly adapt and appropriate other culture’s norms.

Worker Coops and Labor Unions

One of the great opportunities for a cultural shift is occurring right now. As the US labor movement comes to realize that the tiny box known as the National Labor Relations Act (aka The Wagner Model) no longer holds that full potential of organizing workers in a factory-less economy, it is also seeking repowerment by redefining what it means to be a labor union in the United States.

Labor Unions have already attempted the ESOP model only to see some fairly massive failures (United Airlines, for example). They are also seeing a shifting labor movement in terms of language, cultures and industry. In many areas, worker cooperatives and labor unions are working among the same group of workers. The experiment of the US Steelworkers and Mondragon shouldn’t end there. The Mondragon model works for Basque culture but it can’t be simply transplanted onto US workers. We need to create our own model built on our own culture and the first thing to do is to start defining that culture by working with groups to demonstrate that repowerment will be stronger than empowerment. A number of these ideas have already been put into motion due to the determined opportunism (the good kind) of the US worker coop leadership; however, we also need to develop a consistent message that goes beyond “teaching people to fish”, we need to say that worker control doesn’t just feed people’s bodies, but there minds and spirits as well. We aren’t just interested in decent jobs, but in creating a strong society of fully-realized human beings who will be present in their lives and create sustainable health communities. We don’t want a nice playground (workplace) for children (workers). If our worker coops don’t have the ability to make stupid decisions and learn from them then it is just another playground.

Some practical steps:

  • Read Arizmendiaretta’s Pensamientos
  • The US Federation of Workers Cooperatives should consider joining the AFL-CIO when that membership becomes available;
  • Attend and participate at events such as Jobs with Justice to promote the worker ownership and worker control model of worker cooperation (I’ll be in Detroit for one such meeting on October 19).
  • Work with groups such as Interfaith Center for Worker Justice to promote worker cooperatives.
  • Within our cooperatives, take the time to teach about the coops that have successfully flattened their hierarchy or engage real control over the workplace (i.e. they don’t hire a non-member manager to tell them what to do).

Don’t be afraid of a secular spirituality or even a religious spirituality. No one is asking anyone to convert.

Of course, before we can change the culture, we need to agree that it needs changing and on what to change it to. Without having conversations such as the one started by Bob Cannell, we will continue to operate within the Anglo-Saxon paradigm that privileges consumerism over labor.

Workers, in the United States and perhaps in the UK, Canada and other WASP dominated nations have allowed themselves to be defined by the employer which has created an infantilized workforce unable to function without a parental manager leading the way. It is a sick culture that usurps our humanity. If we really want to see our movement grow, it needs a cultural basis (if not an ideological basis) that makes it more than just another arrow in an organizer’s quiver.

1 Comment »

  1. John,

    I’m a bit late to the reading but I agree with every bit of this. A lot of the literature I’ve found on worker cooperatives tends to focus on how worker cooperatives are a better place to work. It’s as if the work is the assumed and the conditions therein an after thought. I think you’re absolutely right in pointing out that the question is “how does work develop humankind?”

    That said, I must ask a question: Is not possible that we could use the Anglo-Saxon idea of the inherent freedom of man as an ideological mooring for cooperatives? I mean, I get that we’ve mostly assigned the freedom concept to a group of self-possessed supermen who run the companies we work for but would it not be simple to argue that the much vaunted freedom of this cultural paradigm should apply equally to all?

    Comment by Ito Eta — June 26, 2014 @ 6:08 pm

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